Heart disease does not discriminate between women and men. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the leading cause of death for both genders in the United States — resulting in more than 600,000 deaths each year.
Long thought to be primarily a man’s problem, heart disease actually accounts for 1 out of every 3 deaths of women in the United States, according to Go Red For Women. That’s why Novant Health UVA Health System is using American Heart Month in February to help women better understand their riskand take action for their heart health.
Women versus men
Women can experience heart disease in different ways compared to men. For example, the disease generally takes almost a decade longer to manifest itself in women than in men. At the time of a first heart attack, the average age for men is usually 60 to 65. Women tend to be closer to 70, said J. Cullen Hardy, MD, a clinical cardiologist with UVA Cardiology, a department of Culpeper Medical Center.
Estrogen may provide women some protection from early heart disease before menopause, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, after age 55, both women and men have an increased risk of having a heart attack, according to the NIH.
“One key way heart disease differs between women and men is in the presentation of heart disease symptoms, and because of this, women’s symptoms sometimes go unnoticed and untreated,” said Alfred C. Burris, MD, cardiologist at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Cardiology.
It’s true that women can have “classic” chest pain and tightness prior to a heart attack, according to Dr. Burris. But women are more likely to experience different signs: shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and pain in their jaw, stomach and back. Other atypical symptoms usually include dizziness, extreme fatigue and unexplained anxiety.
The best defense against heart disease is prevention, and the more you can do to combat heart disease early on, the better.
“You can delay manifestations of heart disease later in life if you live a healthy lifestyle and modify your risk factors now,” said Dr. Hardy.
There are several simple actions you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Quit smoking. Smoking and other tobacco use is the biggest preventable risk factor for heart attack and stroke for women and men.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Doing something as simple as taking the stairs, parking farther from the entrance in the parking lot or going for a walk during lunch time will be beneficial in the long run.
- Eat healthier. As much as you can, eat foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
- Schedule a visit with your doctor once a year. Working with your doctor to identify and manage your risk factors is key in the prevention of heart disease.
Another important thing you can do for your heart health is to not ignore the signs and symptoms, said Dr. Hardy. “We want people to listen to their body and to not dismiss their symptoms,” he said. “You should never be embarrassed to get checked out, especially in the case of a vascular event, because you may not get a second chance.”
To encourage women to get checked out, Novant Health UVA Health System offers a $25 heart health assessment for women, which is available every Tuesday morning. •